Heat Index

a collaborative essay by Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade



In the 16th century, shipping companies often paid sailors in rations of rum. The sailors (always wary of the bosses) learned how to see if they were being ripped off: they poured samples of the liquor on small piles of gunpowder and set them on fire. If the gunpowder ignited, this “proved” the rum hadn’t been watered down. If not—well, then there was hell to be paid. From this drunken history, we get our current system of alcohol proofs: 100 proof (50% alcohol), 80 proof (40%), and so on. When my boyfriend drank, he preferred 100-proof vodka. We didn’t need gunpowder to prove its efficacy—to make everything around us explode.



The word “ardor” stems from a Latin word, ardor, which means “heat” or “burning.” It’s come to mean a fiery passion most likely short-lived. Flames that burn hot, burn out, they say. Yet when we’re in the throes of it, ardor masquerades as love—wants to be the steady burn of hardwood rather than the flash fire of kindling.



This style of yoga takes its name from founder Bikram Choudhury, a controversial figure who claims his series of 26 Hatha postures restored him to full mobility after a crippling accident in his youth. Critics insist this story has not been verified. Bikram studios, of which thousands now exist worldwide, are heated to a minimum of 104 degrees to mimic the climate in India. One paradox of such high temperatures is that they aid in deepening each stretch, but they also deplete the body completely. At a certain point, your muscles become loose, hyper-flexible, but you become so dehydrated and lightheaded that you are barely able to move. At Bikram Yoga Harlem, the teacher is a hairless, shiny man in a Speedo whose rib cage ripples like a waterfall. He takes the towel from my hand when I attempt to wrap it around my ankle. “Use the heat instead,” he says. “Bend into it. There are no modifications allowed in Bikram.”



I’ve been watching (over and over) a video that’s gone viral on Facebook. A high school girl is filming her classmates one by one; she frames them in her lens, then says: “I’m taking pictures of things I find beautiful.” These teenagers have hair dyed orange, piercings in their noses; some are transgendered; some have acne and braces. All of them look neutral or wary at first, dressed in a way that shows great attention to persona. Lots of make-up. Tortured hair. And then, at the word “beautiful,” their faces bloom in unguarded pleasure. They blush, the capillaries of their skin dilating with heat. They put their hands to their mouths. Some of them begin to cry.


Boiling Point

Sometimes called the “saturation temperature,” it’s the degree of heat required to vaporize a liquid. Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, 212 Fahrenheit. I have to take the chemistry teacher’s word for it, since I can never make the corresponding equation come out right. When he asks me to stay after class, I plead poetry as my defense for poor performance. “Poets aren’t empiricists,” I explain. “We’re interested in describing more than proving.” It must take a tremendous amount of self-control for Mr. Nowak not to roll his eyes. His own boiling point is set higher than most adults I know. “You see, I’d rather describe the sound the tea kettle makes when she reaches that heat than work the numbers to explain her whistle-song.”


Can’t take the
Harry S. Truman is thought to have coined the phrase as early as 1942. Known as a plain-spoken President, he reportedly told his White House staff not to quibble over their appointments: “I’ll stand by [you], but if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” During long Pennsylvania winters, we always sought refuge in the kitchen, baking all day or simply heating the cast-iron skillet inside the oven—to deepen its seasoning, we said, but really to warm our hands. In Florida, when temperatures dropped into the 40s, we tried to turn on the heat, but nothing happened. A quick call to maintenance explained the problem: “This building isn’t wired for heat,” the plain-spoken super said. “Given how rarely it’s needed, Management decided it wasn’t worth the expense.”



It may be my favorite funny movie of all time. A serious, by-the-book FBI agent (Sandra Bullock) is forced to team up with a hot-headed, street-wise detective (Melissa McCarthy) in order to bring down the head of a treacherous Boston crime ring. It’s a movie about female friendship that passes the Bechdel test with flying colors: two women who both have names and talk to each other (humorously and at length) about something (everything) besides a man. It’s the reason we quip about anything over-rated: “Is it served in Jesus’s shoe?” It’s the reason we shout about anything invasive: “Get fuck out my house!” And it’s the reason I say lovingly to my spouse, “I’m going to bring you that sandwich,” and she, looking me square in the face, replies, “Throw out that sandwich.”



Like Hillary and Bernie in the race for the Presidency. Late into the night at the Iowa Caucus: votes piling up in equal portion and victory too close to call. When I ran track, I tried to come in second because I thought the red ribbon was prettier than the blue. I’d match my opponent stride for stride, then pause a second on the final step so she could split the streamer at the finish line. Soon, though, the competition stiffened: twelve runners instead of six, the fearsome gun instead of the pleasant whistle. I moved to the back of the pack. A contender no more, my mother cried from the stands, “You’re dead in the water out there!”



Once upon a time a fair maid lived with an evil prince in a trailer by an enchanted lake. This lake sprung up in the middle of the desert: sapphire- blue water against fiery red rocks. The water was cold and deep, held ghosts of drowned junipers and coyotes. Sometimes, at night, the maid could hear cries of Anasazi women reach her from thousands of years away. One day, the evil prince took her out in a motor boat and drove her deep into an isolated side canyon. She had little food and water. She had a tent and a sleeping bag. He left her there to have what he called a vision quest. By day the heat grew steadily, enveloped her in its embrace. A dry heat. The water lapped against the shore, but she didn’t dare go in. A raven traced a cat’s cradle against the sky. Called her a new name. Wanted her to be transformed.



When he told me he was leaving, things got a little heated. I repeated the word why?, my question marks growing loud and harsh. Our words had friction, threw sparks. It felt like arson. We lived in a log home in the middle of almost-nowhere, surrounded by woods. It wouldn’t have taken much to start a wildfire.



Something about how the police are “the heat” or criminals “feel the heat”whenever the police come near. For some reason, the plot is hard to follow.In the 1995 film, Robert De Niro plays a cunning thief; Al Pacino plays a savvy cop. Maybe “cunning” and “savvy” are really synonyms, but a villain answers to one, a hero to the other? Words are more interesting to me than men. They are currently running in a dead heat with women. I go to high school with only girls. I dream about only girls. When a girl and I watch this movie together on VHS, she laughs. “I don’t think you can even tell those old Italian dudes apart!”



What comes after “heat cramps” but before “heat stroke”—this mezzanine of heavy sweat, rapid pulse, the body overheating the way car engines do. Caused by—prolonged exposure to sun, too much exertion at high temperatures, not enough water. Even Jacuzzis and saunas can be culprits if you stay in long enough. Every September I ran the high school jogathon on the hottest day of the year. Sister Rosemary brought her sun umbrella to the track. Other teachers drank lemonade and fanned themselves with packets: our math homework and essay exams. In the single hour, I could do six miles, but I wanted to reach seven. Think of all those pledges—one dollar a mile, five dollars, ten. Think of all those silly girls who wore visors, took water breaks, chewed on ice. Think of all those girls who shamed themselves by walking. Not me. I wouldn’t stop, even when Sister Rosemary suggested I was “dangerously red.” Every year I missed the award ceremony. Home in bed—an ice pack on my head and feet, the Mercury relentless in its rise.



The body fights fire with fire. In response to inflammation, the hypothalamus resets the body’s core temperature in order to burn out intruders. The hypothalamus sits deep within the brain, manning the controls—a small organ, ringed with nerves. It monitors signals from throughout the body and regulates just about anything: thirst, hunger, mood, carnal desire. It craves homeostasis, the status quo. Imagine it hunched over a switchboard, directing input and output—a little bit here, a little bit there. It remains cool. It never takes a coffee break or chats at the vending machines. It never gets out of hand.



Once upon a time there was a girl who lived in a valley where hot water burbled up from underground. She was a very pretty girl, but not the fairest in the land. Still, she worked hard every day: weeding the garden, cleaning the hot tubs, answering phones at the front desk and making reservations for honored guests who wished to partake of the magical waters. She was a gatekeeper; occasionally she needed to escort an ogre from the property. She lived in a shack with a man who was not a prince. But when she disrobed in the bathhouse at dawn, the waters claimed they loved her. Water poured over her neck, her arms, her breasts. Her skin grew soft, luminous. She became a queen, a woman who glowed with power.



Some believe in it and some don’t. But according to climate scientists, it’s not a question of warming, but of excess. The extremes will continue to become more extreme: blizzards, hurricanes, temperatures at either end of the spectrum. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water on the stove, we won’t notice until it’s too late. We’ll be cooked.


All we know is that it’s supposed to be hot—a raging furnace, a lake of fire. Later, we learn “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” an idiom not to be confused with “She’s hotter than Hell.” Perhaps Hell, like God, is in the details. Or perhaps anger and attraction are closer than cousins after all. Maybe we don’t always want the heat of wanting. Maybe it burns us up to burn for the beloved this way. Anne Carson writes, “Love, as you know, is a harrowing event.” Hellish, we call it, the aching descent into desire.


Hot & cold

Like fever and chills of the heart. So many strong verbs: to waver; to oscillate or vacillate; to toggle between possibles or straddle a line. More recently and politically: to flip-flop. The phrase evokes mood rings and pendulums, the fickle lover and the bar room tease. Perhaps even the Magic 8-Ball. From the Greek, peripeteia: a reversal of intention or outcome. A twist, a recursion. In other words, as it’s often construed: to be wishy-washy, to send mixed signals, to give false hope, to change—that most daring maneuver—your mind.


Hot & heavy

I’ve read that committed couples are only “hot and heavy” for the first 18 months, the length of time it takes to secure each other’s trust. But what about Eliot’s “lifetime burning in every moment”? What about the blue flame that leaps up in a lover’s throat each time she remembers the death in “death do us part”? My father had a blank gag book called Sex after Fifty. My mother’s friends joked about pressing “pause on men” at menopause. Viagra commercials make me blush—a man and woman holding hands in separate bathtubs on the beach. I blush for their nakedness, for their vulnerability, for the silliness of this scenario. Still, I understand the way physical passion deepens other kinds of intimacy. It has been thirteen years for me. I feel only more, not less. I think awareness of mortality is the ultimate aphrodisiac.


Hot & spicy

My father-in-law buys Slap Ya Mama by the case. He pours the sauce into chili, the seasoning onto scrambled eggs. My brother-in-law has been known to order the napalm nachos at Toot’s, a chain restaurant in Tennessee. If you can eat the whole plate, your order is free, but you may need a quart of milk to calm your stomach down. By the time he is three, my nephew demands Tabasco in his soup, cries for cherry peppers on his grilled cheese. Perhaps there is a “some like it hot” gene that runs in families. My spouse douses every entrée with Sriracha. Our pantry shelves are lined with green-tipped bottles sporting the proud white rooster design. Meanwhile, I coax mild jalapeños from under my beans, slip them discretely onto her plate.



When an animal is ready to mate, she’s in heat. Her hormones put her into estrus—eggs plumping up, uterus thickening, all cylinders firing. Breeding females are called bitches, but it’s not meant as an insult. I once fostered a nine-month-old Shepherd as she gave birth to eight puppies. She’d gone into heat as a stray, and from the looks of the litter, more than one male sniffed her out. Though I knew it was all simply biological—that the dog, Becky, wouldn’t feel any shame—I wept when I thought of her on the streets, beset by males, trapped.



It turns out that the old adage “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” is true. The heat index, created by weatherman George Winterling in 1978, calculates how poorly sweat will evaporate in humid conditions, thus creating the perception that you’re hotter than you actually are. He first called it the “humiture.” He predicted the landfall of Hurricane Dora in Jacksonville, Florida in 1964—the early years of televised weather reports. George was innocuously good-looking, in the way of meteorologists. Someone you could trust: photogenic for the camera—blond hair, a craggy nose, bright eyes—but not what one could call hot.


Journey to the Center of the Earth

In the Jules Verne novel, Professor Otto Lidenbrock, his nephew Axel, and their guide Hans descend one volcano in Iceland and eventually resurface through another volcano in Italy. Even with my limited understanding of world geography, I find this premise ludicrous, not to mention miserably hot. “But isn’t it exciting,” my father prods, “all the adventures they have underground?” I hate the way adventure stories are always written by men about other men and boys. I am a girl, I am a reader, but I want to have adventures, too. “It would be more exciting if there were a girl in there—doing something,” I say. “Doing anything.”


Masala Chai

The word “chai” means, simply, tea. But often, here in the west, when we order a chai we really mean “Masala Chai,” that particular combination of black tea, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and black peppercorns. We dilute it with steamed milk and honey. When you take the first sip—gingerly, because it’s hot—the spices ignite first your lips, then your tongue, finally warming the belly, where your chi simmers. My yoga teacher, Ruby, makes it with coconut milk and organic sugar as a treat for our hard work. We hover around her at the tea station, glowing from our exertions.



In winter, all of South Florida revolves around The Heat. Their games are broadcast at every taco shack along the beach, in every bar and probably every boardroom, too. Boys wear oversized jerseys that fit like dresses. Swaddled to their knees, it becomes difficult to shoot, let alone leap to the hoop like Duane or LeBron. When we first moved here, I thought I was seeing signs for a Pentecostal church, a holy white halo filled with righteous fire. “Naw, that’s the logo for the Miami Heat,” a Super Fan touting the image on his t-shirt explained. “And if you think that’s neat, you should see Burnie, the team’s mascot.” Then, as if it was something people said every day: “He’s great. He’s an anthropomorphic fireball.”


Of the moment

Adrenaline is an archaic drug. Whoever designed us figured we’d need a little boost to help us spring into action against threat. Saber-toothed tigers, say, or an unfamiliar man bearing a club. Our bodies actually sense danger a split-second before our minds can register it, so we’re primed for fight or flight before we really know it. Evolution failed to phase out this reflex, so even in the absence of real threat, our hearts start beating fast, our faces flush, and we begin saying things we won’t mean the next day, or even in the next hour. We call it the heat of the moment. You see it in cartoons: the boss man with steam geysering from his head, or the woman with exclamation points flying from her mouth like daggers.


Of the night

When Ray Charles sings it, you know salvation must be near. Seems like a cold sweat/ Creeping cross my brow, oh yes /In the heat of the night/ I’m a feelin’ motherless somehow…We have to drop deep into darkness before the morning comes. Sometimes we call it “a dark night of the soul.” It’s a theme for the movie of the same name. In it, Sydney Poitier gets to slap a white man: the first time such a retaliation in public was permitted. He gets to say: They call me Mr. Tibbs. It’s 1967. Lots of things are on fire.



It’s hard to know who is really “packing heat” and who is just posturing. The phrase seems to proliferate: music videos and video games, the songs they play in spin class, Law and Order, every action movie from Die Hard to Mad Max: Fury Road. Do women pack heat? Even when they carry guns, the phrase seems decidedly masculine, as if it doesn’t even apply to them. Then, a student of mine—a woman, older than I, a mother of three—confides she always carries a gun. “It’s not something I advertise, but I do have a concealed weapons permit.” I’m speechless. Perhaps my lip turns down, suggesting a question or a judgment of some kind. “Yeah,” she says, “I just feel safer knowing I have what the bad guys have.”



In this year’s primary season, one unlikely candidate has surged forward. He has charisma, he’s hot, but not in the youthful, chiseled, good-looking way we’ve come to expect from winning politicians. He is like your grandfather, with wild white hair and a grizzled chin. He yells at you like your grandfather yelled at the TV, in a voice husky with passion. He is a Democratic Socialist, a phrase that makes you think of dim tenements in 1930’s Manhattan. Though a woman is running against him, you feel drawn to his ill-fitting suits, his dentured smile. His campaigners have coined the slogan: Feel the Bern.



I never follow recipes. Perhaps this is my small rebellion in a life otherwise spent heeding the rules. I mix cake batter and pour it into a Bundt pan, say, or I arrange winter vegetables on a roasting tray, but then I’m ready—ready to slip these encumbrances inside the oven and be done, wash my hands and wipe them on my pants since I have never invested in an apron. I’m ready to head back to my book or my desk with its papers fluttering like so many pairs of wings. Forget about pre-heating or setting the timer; I’m certain I’ll smell the edibles when they’re done.



It’s a kind of heat, but it’s also a kind of song—a show tune—which is the kind of song I like best. Before I ever saw The Pajama Game performed on stage or screen, I saw Georgette Franklin—sweet Georgette!—transform herself into a slinky, sexy diva and belt out this number on Mary Tyler Moore. Her boyfriend Ted is embarrassed. He doesn’t want Georgette showing off her body that way—skimpy black leotard, transparent tights—or is it her talent that he wants her to hide? Carol Haney has a version of the song, as do Shirley MacLaine, Patti Page, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, and Liza Minnelli. Every singer’s version is different, but all of them begin with a visceral-sonic pop-hiss-fizz, an erotic onomatopoeia: I’ve got ::cling cling:: fsssss steam heat.



When I was four years old I got my tonsils out. No big deal, but when my parents brought me home, the city was in the midst of a heat wave. Temperatures soared over a hundred degrees day after day; we had no air conditioning, so I sat sweating by the screen door. The nights were no better: the house gathered heat that radiated inward. I ate ice cream and whined it’s so hot. I had a fever. I whimpered and slept fitfully, the covers kicked off. I kept hearing the words heat wave, and imagined the heat like a tsunami, the crest curling but never quite smashing down. The water just keeps building and building until it floods.



Dare you see a Soul at the ‘White Heat’?” Emily Dickinson asks. Heat loses all color at its uppermost limit, a heat so bright it blinds. It might be, if we squint hard enough, the light of heaven. Dickinson uses the forge as an analogy for creative and spiritual expansion; we must dare to lose ourselves, to become hot, to disappear into the light. We become malleable, melted, misshapen—in order to become something useful, enlightened, or beautiful. In blacksmithing, white heat represents the temperature “at which a body becomes brightly incandescent.”



I’ve signed up for a workout program called “The Daily Burn.” The commercials are so convincing, and I get to try it for 30 days free. So far, I’ve watched two workouts while sitting on the couch eating popcorn. The leader has a broad torso rippling with muscle, bald head gleaming (one could say he is hot, if one goes for that kind of thing). He exclaims, Okay now ladies, are we warmed up? Then they get to work, skipping an imaginary jump rope, staggering in “the drunken ape.” All of them keep smiling, no matter how much it hurts.

Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade

Brenda Miller is the author of several collections of lyric nonfiction, including, most recently, An Earlier Life (Judith Kitchen’s Ovenbird Books, 2016). She co-authored Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, and The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. She teaches in the creative writing program at Western Washington University.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of several collections of poetry and lyric nonfiction, including, most recently, Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016) and SIX: Poems (Red Hen Press, 2016). She teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University.